Most roleplaying games I’ve played have the PCs at more or less full ability at all times, unless they have exhausted their resources or are otherwise specifically constrained.
There are a few exceptions, and I’d like to explore them a bit.
In 13th Age, a d6 is placed on the table (and the book recommends the largest, most conspicuous one you can put your hands on — I’ve see some foam dice that certainly suit) and advanced each round. Heroes (and some significant opponents) have abilities that are keyed off the value of the die. For instance, an ability that can only be used when the escalation die is 4 or more, or an even number, and so on. This limits, perhaps artificially, what a hero can do, but it leads to an escalation toward a climactic finish to the encounter. (The die resets after each encounter, obviously.)
In Dungeons & Dragons 4e, creatures and PCs (but I’ll stick with ‘creature’ for simplicity) can be ‘bloodied’. Some special creatures (*cough* dragons, of course) have powers that are triggered on being bloodied the first time in an encounter, and some other creatures have abilities that gain bonuses or penalties while bloodied, or that have greater or lesser effect against bloodied opponents. Since reducing a target to ‘bloodied’ condition can be seen as something of a milestone when fighting them, and this tends to cause some greater effect, it can be taken as a form of escalation. This is not on a set schedule, but depends entirely on an in-game event (reducing the target below half hit points).
In Sentinels: The Roleplaying Game (RPG based on the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game), they have the ‘GYRO’ (pronounced ‘hero’, nice) system. Each encounter has a tracker with ‘Green, Yellow, Red, and Out’ ranges. Each round the counter advances, moving through Green, then Yellow, then Red, before going Out. As the counter moves from range to range the participants in the encounter can have abilities that come online. Each significant character has a similar GYRO tracker based on hit point total, and uses the ‘worse’ (closer to Out) value. For instance, if a character has been damaged enough to be Red, even in the first round (while the encounter is Green), that character has access to their full range of Green, Yellow, and Red abilities. And probably needs them, because they’re in trouble. If a PC is reduced to ‘Out’ they can only offer some support actions, and if the encounter reaches ‘Out’ the Bad Thing the PCs were fighting for goes bad. The number of segments in the tracker is set before the encounter, and advances once per round (and sometimes more; there can be participants — usually Doomsday Devices — that also advance the tracker).
Overall, I like the concept, especially with having new abilities and options become available as the situation escalates. I’m not wholly satisfied with how the escalation actually happens. Having things escalate simply because the encounter has lasted a little longer doesn’t really satisfy me. I’d like to see something more event-driven.
For instance, I can imagine something like the GYRO tracker, but instead of advancing each round automatically, it advances on events such as:
- A PC is neutralized (reduced to 0 hit points, held, picked up and carried away, etc.).
- One of the encounter groups (such as the mob of goblins that the ogre boss is bossing) is reduced to half its numbers (one step) or neutralized entirely (two steps).
- Boss is bloodied (which could trigger a ‘bloodied event’ such as D&D 4e’s dragons having a ‘bloodied breath’ power that refreshes and triggers immediately when the dragon is first bloodied in an encounter).
- Boss is defeated (which might end the encounter entirely).
- Doomsday Device (which could in this context be environmental, such as uncontrolled fire or flooding) reaches its next phase (which actually could be on a strict timer).
- Certain powers or abilities are demonstrated (high-level magic, especially of certain types, might be an immediate cause for escalation).
- ‘Encounter-specific events’ happen, such as ‘[target] statuette is removed from the pedestal’.
Each advancement opportunity could advance more than one step. I can imagine the tracker could be decremented if the effect is undone. On the other hand, I can understand that after seeing the barbarian ‘neutralized’ (swallowed by the purple worm), watching him claw his way out and go looking for more blood could be cause for another advancement instead!
Each time the escalation tracker advances, there are various things that can happen.
- New abilities or options become available (as with Sentinels).
- ‘Personal events’ may be triggered, such as ‘bloodied breath’.
- ‘Encounter events’ may be triggered, such as the mob having to make a morale check or flee, or reinforcements arriving. This feels like it could be a bit dissociated… I need to think on this one.
- Moving to another phase of a multi-phase encounter. Maybe the Leader of the Pack (mentioned in the previously-linked post, from the Wolf Den of my Node-Based Megadungeon) encounter isn’t triggered by ‘defeating’ the Leader of the Pack, but by some combination of circumstances that escalates the encounter to the next phase.
There could even be some ‘branches’ to it. Yes, we’re at escalation stage four, but what happens when we reach that stage depends on how we got there. If it’s because the PCs managed to quietly shank the boss and take the MacGuffin that’s one thing, but if it’s because they came swooping in and started blowing things up there could be different consequences.
I like where this is going. It needs some more fleshing out and refinement, but I think I could be onto something.